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Thomas a Kempis

the authorship of the "Imitation of Christ"
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the authorship of the "Imitation of Christ"
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Thomas a Kempis : the authorship of the "Imitation of Christ"

Thomas a Kempis A few words on Thomas' claim, once disputed but now hardly so, to the authorship of the "Imitation of Christ". The book was first issued anonymously (1418) and was soon accorded a wide welcome, copied by different scribes, and attributed to various spiritual writers, among others St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, Henry de Kalkar, Innocent III, Jean Charlier de Gerson, and John Kempis. In 1441 Thomas completed and signed his name to a codex still extant (Royal Library, Brussels, 5855-61), containing the four books of the "Imitation" and nine minor treatises. Then for two hundred years no serious attempt was made to dispossess Kempis of his title; but eary in the seventeenth century a fierce and prolonged controversy was commenced with the object of establishing the claim of either Jean Charlier de Gerson, Chancellor of Paris, or of his Italian variant, Giovanni Gerson, alleged Benedictine Abbot of Vercelli. At one period an Englishman, Walter Hilton, Canon Regular of Thurgarton, the author of the "Scale (Ladder) of Perfection", was brought forward, but his claim was not long maintained. Incredible as it may sound, the very existence of Giovanni Gerson of Vercelli is yet to be proved. Of Jean Charlier de Gerson the following facts have been established and they may be found demonstrated at length in such works as Cruise, "Thomas Kempis", and Kettlewell, "The Authorship of the De Imitatione Christi". Not a single contemporary witness is found in Gersen's favour; not a single manuscript during his life or for thirty years after his death ascribes the work to him; internal evidence, style, matter, etc. are in every respect unfavourable. On the other hand we find the title of Kempis proved by the following : several contemporary witnesses of unimpeachable authority, including members of his own order, name Thomas as the author; contemporary manuscripts, including one autograph codex, bear his name; internal evidence is wholly favourable. Sir Francis Cruise summarizes this last item under three headings:

identity of style, including peculiarities common to the "Imitation" and other undisputed works of Kempis, viz.: barbarisms, Italianized words, Dutch idioms, systematic rhythmical punctuation, and the word devotus as used primarily of associates of the new devotion;
The "Imitation" breathes the wholespirit of the Windesheim school of mysticism;
it is impregnated throughout with the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, especially St. Augustine and St. Bernard, all favourite founts of inspiration for Kempis and his fellow Canons of Windesheim.
The "Imitation" itself, the best known and the first in order of merit of his original writings, comprises in bulk about one-tenth of the works of a Kempis. Many were originally instructions for the novices and junior Canons of whom, as subprior, Thomas had charge; others are spiritual treatises of wider application and some of these indeed, as the "Oratio de elevatione mentis in Deum", rise to sublime heights of mysticism. There are numerous prayers of sweet devotion and quaint Latin hymns of simple rhythm and jingling rhyme. One work, of which Thomas was editor rather than author, is a "Life of (St.) Lydwine, Virgin". The best complete edition so far of the "Opera Omnia" of Kempis is that of the Jesuit Somalius, published by Nut of Antwerp, 1607; even this does not contain the "Chronicon Montis Sanctae Agnetis", which was edited by H. Rosweyd, S.J., and published in one volume with the "Chronicon Windesemense" (Antwerp, 1621). Of the innumerable editions of the "Imitation", doubtless by far the most interesting is a facsimile from the 1441 codex, published in London, 1879. A splendid critical edition of the "Opera Omnia" was published by Herder under the able editorship of Dr. Pohl early in the twentieth century. Perhaps in this connexion we may quote the enthusiastic commendation of Prior Pirkhamer addressed to Peter Danhausser, the publisher of the first edition of Thomas Kempis' works, 1494: "Nothing more holy, nothing more honourable, nothing more religious, nothing in fine more profitable for the Christian commonweal can you ever do than to make known these works of Thomas Kempis."


Source : VINCENT SCULLY , Transcribed by Marie Jutras in

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